History in Australia
Salesians of St John Bosco
St John Bosco founded the Salesian Congregation in 1859 and made St Francis of Sales its model and patron. Hence the name ‘Salesians’. Most people identify the Salesians as being dedicated to works for young people, but St John Bosco also had foreign missionary work as an essential part of the Salesian vocation.
Salesians Arrive in Australia
A group of Salesians was sent to the Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1922 at the express request of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide (the Vatican body responsible at the time for organising the Church’s missionary work). Propaganda Fide saw this as an important missionary expedition and so made the leader of the band a bishop – Bishop Ernest Coppo. The remainder of the party was made up of four priests and three brothers.
A Disastrous Enterprise
These first Salesians, full of enthusiasm and faith, arrived in Broome to begin their mission only to find in horror that the Pallotine Fathers had been working there in very difficult circumstances since 1901. There was several years of embarrassment and stagnation by both the Salesians and the Pallotines until the confusion was resolved by Propaganda Fide.
Salesians Move South
Even though the Salesians left the Kimberley region and moved to the Archdiocese of Melbourne in 1927, things did not go smoothly for the first few years. Bishop Coppo returned to Italy and semi-retirement. He was replaced by Fr Emmanuel Mannassero who had been Provincial of the Western Province of the United States. It was he who made the ambitious purchase of the stately mansion and property of “Rupertswood” Sunbury, Victoria. This was an enormous financial burden which hung around the Australian Salesians’ neck for many years – years which included the “Great Depression” of the early 1930s.
Fr Joseph Ciantar Arrives
Fr Joseph Ciantar arrived in Australia in November 1938. Originally from Malta, Fr Ciantar was an energetic extrovert, whose charm enabled him to be an expert fundraiser. He paid off the enormous “Rupertswood” debt, and established new works in Brunswick (Vic), Brooklyn Park (SA), Glenorchy (Tas), Oakleigh (Vic) and Engadine (NSW). His charism attracted young men to the Salesian vocation and he had a Novitiate established on the “Rupertswood” property in 1941 with four novices.
A Separate Province
The expanding Salesian presence in Australia had been considered part of the Californian Province of the United States. In 1958, the Salesian General Council arrived at the decision that the Salesian presence in Australia was sufficiently mature and self-supporting that it established Australia as a separate province under the title of Mary Help of Christians, with Fr B. M. Fedrigotti as the first Provincial.
In the years that followed there was a growth in the number of Salesians and the nature and scope of the works in which they were involved. New schools were established by or entrusted to the care of the Salesians in Bairnsdale, Chadstone, Engadine, Ferntree Gully, and Gawler. The Salesians took on responsibility for parishes including Clifton Hill, Brooklyn Park, Brunswick North, Engadine, Gawler, Glenorchy, St Marys, and Victoria Park. A number of Australian Salesians volunteered to work in missions in countries such as India, South Sudan, Guatemala and Ecuador.
In recent years the Salesians have tried to respond to the changing needs and the circumstances of the Australian Church. Some works were closed because they were no longer viable. Others have changed the nature of their mission. Other works have been renewed to better cater for contemporary needs. A new Youth Centre was established at St Marys in 1992. A new formation house opened at Clifton Hill in 2002 and a new Province Centre was established in Ascot Vale in 2004.
Another attempt to respond to changing and emerging needs saw the Australian Salesians develop a presence in the Pacific. The Salesians arrived in Samoa in 1981 at the request of Cardinal Pio Taofinuu, Archbishop Samoa and Tokelou. Fr Elio Proietto first worked in a parish on the island of Savaii. The Salesians were then entrusted with responsibility for Moamoa Theological College, which they continued to administer until 2004. Other works were soon established including Don Bosco Technical Centre, Alafua (1988), St John Bosco Parish, Sinamoga (1987) and St Michael’s Parish, Leauva’a (1992).
The growth of vocations from Samoa required the establishment of Don Bosco House in Suva, Fiji, so that students studying to become Salesians could attend the Pacific Regional Seminary. The student-Salesians soon engaged in pastoral work in schools and camps and the name ‘Don Bosco’ quickly became known around Suva. Vocations to the Salesians have flourished, and there are now more than twenty Samoan Salesians working or studying in Samoa, Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
The Salesians are now in Savaii in the parish of St. Francis de Sales and have opened a new high school and vocational centre.
The Present Situation
There are currently approximately 107 Salesian priests and brothers in Australia, Samoa, New Zealand and Fiji undertaking more than 60 different types of activities in 15 different centres.
The key issues facing the Province are ageing Salesians, an acute shortage of vocations in Australia, stretched resources, and the need to respond creatively to the changing circumstances of Church and society.
Nevertheless, the Salesian works in Australia, Samoa and Fiji are vibrant enterprises and there is a high demand for services of the Salesians. In many works Salesians are working cooperatively alongside lay partners, amongst whom there is a renewed interest in the spirit and mission of Don Bosco. In Samoa, which continues to be a rich source of vocations, local Salesians are progressively taking greater responsibility for leading the expanding number and variety of works.
Note: For a more detailed treatment of history of the Salesian presence in Australia, see “Unless the Grain Falls”, a description of the Kimberley era and then “Grateful Heirs”, which treats the period 1927-1961.
Both books can be obtained from Salesian Province Centre, PO Box 264, Ascot Vale, Victoria, 3032. Phone (03) 9377 6000.